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Every Catholic in the world should read St Augustine’s Confessions

You cannot do moral theology without the saint, whose feast day is today

By on Wednesday, 28 August 2013

St Augustine and St Monica, as depicted by Ary Scheffer

St Augustine and St Monica, as depicted by Ary Scheffer

Like Benedict XVI, I am a devotee of St Augustine, whose feast we celebrate today. My enthusiasm for the saint first started when I read the Confessions at the tender age of 19. After that, as a theology student in Rome, I thought I would go on to study patristics, but I was given no encouragement to do so, and the way patristics were taught at the level of the institutional course was enough to put anyone off.

Indeed, quite a lot of people simply do not get the importance of Augustine: when I was doing my doctoral thesis I was told again and again that Augustine was of no relevance to moral theology. I begged to differ, and wrote a thesis, later published as a book, which more or less says that you cannot do moral theology without Augustine. It’s there in libraries for people to read; maybe one day people will wake up to the fact that Augustine is the essential basis of any true moral method. But I am not holding my breath.

Yesterday was the feast of Saint Monica, Augustine’s mother, and the passage used as second reading at the Office of Readings was the climactic passage from the Confessions known as the ecstasy of Ostia. You can read that passage here, though the most important bit has been left out, incredibly. The whole passage, untruncated, is reproduced here, with an interesting commentary.

The ecstasy of Ostia reminds us that in its origins Christianity is an ecstatic cult, a going out of oneself towards the sublimity and beauty of God. And that too is what morality is: a striving towards the sublime good, a sense of being called to live in the light of that which lies just beyond us, perceptible, but out of sight. It is not really about fulfilling a law, still less finding out the minimal requirements that fulfill the law: it is about being stretched towards that which is greater than ourselves. It is sensing a call.

This is something that also underpins the Office for today’s feast, also taken from the Confessions, where Augustine confesses that he feels the call of the beauty so ancient and yet so new.  This concept, that of a goodness and beauty that calls to us, is what Benedict XVI felt and what he wanted to draw our attention to. We need to lift up our eyes, and we need to feel the longing of our hearts, as did the great Augustine. Liturgy should be the place where that longing is kindled and where it finds fulfillment too.

The Augustinian stream has always been present in Catholicism; it was certainly present in the great Bonaventure, who wrote the superb Itinerarium Mentis in Deum (The Journey of the Mind into God), a short book that can still be read with great profit today; it is certainly present in the great Catholic works of art, such as Bernini’s Saint Teresa in Ecstasy, and in great Catholic architecture, both gothic and baroque. But if I had one wish for today’s feast, it would be this: that every Catholic in the world read St Augustine’s Confessions. It has so much to teach us. Don’t let anyone put you off!

  • John Morrison

    I was reading them back in March while away,along with Gibbon Fallof the Roman Empire.Unfortunately I found both repetitious and not all that inspiring.VAt II needs a lot more salvage and damage control.We Catholics and Americans are abysmally ignorant on Churchand state history and beliefs.THe Clergy gave us no cathechesis 50+ years after the Jesuit unmitigated disaster VAT II.Academehas done the same re the history of our unvirtuous pesudodemocratic government

  • Darren

    I agree Father. I read The Confessions a few years back and am glad I did – a true masterpiece.

  • http://jabbapapa.wordpress.com/ Julian Lord

    I’ve still not got round to the Confessions, but am determined to read them in the Latin — hmmmm, perhaps that’s one more item on the list for my 2104 pilgrimage from Lourdes to Santiago ?

  • NatOns

    There are a few – rather good – audiobook versions. Having read this and the City of God in my teens and twenties (not yesterday) the audio version was a renewing treat, and not so hefty to lug around (big plus for me). The Latin texts can be a tad dense – not unreadable, but like Wow! whoa! where ..!

    Along with Aquinas (after the Holy Ghost but with Bonaventure, Liguori, Newman, the Little Flower, Marmion, Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Fulton Sheen and ..) Augustine is an ever constant companion – even to this dulling eyesight under the marvellous, miraculous gift of glasses.

    Please God more of the well read audio editions will be made soon, they really are a God-send (yip! that’s my usual plea) .. but however you leap into the Confessions, enjoy your long swim through the wave upon wave of a painfully sincere yet enduringly truthful mind.

  • Benedict Carter

    Good article.

  • Jon Brownridge

    “The ecstasy of Ostia reminds us that in its origins Christianity is an
    ecstatic cult, a going out of oneself towards the sublimity and beauty
    of God.”

    So true… If only all Catholics could understand this.

  • http://jabbapapa.wordpress.com/ Julian Lord

    There’s a cheap paperback of the text in Latin, a French edition IIRC but could be mistaken ; a bit hard to locate in Amazon but it’s there ; and though my Classical isn’t so good that I wouldn’t need occasional use of a dictionary, the French softcover Gaffiot is both excellent and portable. :-)

  • JR, Sydney

    My unbeliever husband gave me the Confessions to read a couple of Christmases ago. What an outpouring of turgid self-indulgence! It reminds me of the novel Clarissa: life is too short to read it twice.

    Better the astringent commonsense of Thomas a Kempis.

  • kentgeordie

    Brave man. I sympathise, having just set myself the task of reading the Gospels in Greek in a year, which works out at a dozen or so verses a day. My solution is parallel texts. It’s still very hard work, given my lack of previous knowledge, but very satisfying.

    Wouldn’t it be great if every diocese had a continuing education department to support our efforts?

  • Dave

    There is also the loeb editions–the old ones pair Augustine (and Boethius amongst others) with 17th century translations, which make for a (sometimes at least) elegant crib. And they are cheap.

  • Dave

    Wouldn’t it be great if every diocese had a continuing education department to support our efforts?

    Indeed, years ago my diocese offered, and I attended, a two-year long course on Catholic history and doctrine, taught by a retired historian, and it was very successful at correcting poor catechesis and inspiring a zeal for orthodox faith amongst both ‘spirit of vatican 2′ and non-practising Catholics. Incidentally, in a different diocese, I brought up the idea of providing some instruction in Latin for those interesting in the patrimony of their Church (I have taught languages professionally, including classical, medieval and neo-Latin) but I was told that no one would be interested and that it would be ‘counterproductive’ to press on with it. Alas.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    Consider reading the English or French translation first, and then the Latin- the Confessions get deeper with every reading. Unlike the City of God, parts of the Confessions are better read fast than slow the first time (depending on how fast you read Latin).

  • Sara_TMS_again

    Try suggesting classes learning to read the Gospels in New Testament Greek instead- no-one can argue that that would be ‘counter-productive’.

    You then have a captive audience for your Latin after that- try offering the Latin psalter (terrible Latin, but fabulous poetry, and relatively easy).

  • Sara_TMS_again

    Which translation were you using? Try the Chadwick one (Oxford World’s Classics), it’s a bit less ponderous than some, and keeps the pace up.

    And try reading a biography of his life before you go back to them, so you’ll know roughly what’s coming, and understand more of the significance of some of the philosophical stages he moves through.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    Yes, but the whole point of the Confessions is that you need Christ, the Way, and the sacraments, to get to the point of going out of yourself towards God, because it is Christ who is the bridge. Without Christ, going out of yourself towards God is impossible.

  • kentgeordie

    Agreed, from time to time courses do appear. But there is no sense that the faithful need ‘life-long learning’, and no awareness of how such provision could be structured. Isn’t this a major deficiency???

  • Sara_TMS_again

    I’ve read it many times- I reread it every couple of years. Every time I get more out of it, and every time different things strike me about it.

    Augustine is both fiercely intelligent and deeply emotional, and therefore takes a lot of intellectual and intuitive work. But if you’ve never asked yourself the questions he asks, or worried about the things he worries about, it won’t make much sense.

  • JR, Sydney

    Sara, I am well aware of the circumstances of Augustine’s life ( read the biography long before wading through the Confessions) . Don’t assume anything about any questions I might have asked or worried about the things he worried about ( sex mainly). An inappropriately condescending attitude, that. Nothing like the ruminations of the terminally self-absorbed to be passed off as suitable reading for Catholics.

  • JR, Sydney

    Yes, great food for dissent.

  • Dave

    Yes. I personally love to study and cannot fathom why anyone would chose, say television or video games, over a grubby old grammar and an history in seven volumes–but I am not exactly sure how a provision for instilling lifelong desire for learning could be structured, for those who have not caught the bug already?

  • Dave

    Thank you for the advice. I would have happily suggested Greek, or even Hebrew for that matter, but my primary hope at the time was to help people learn just enough Latin that they could understand and foster an interest in Latin prayer, music and liturgy. I would be more than ecstatic to teach a group of Catholics to read the Bible in Greek and Latin, but I wonder if very many would actually have the time or the inclination to study ancient languages. As even under the best circumstances it is often an uphill struggle to get people interested–there are even now a growing number of Classics departments around the world that in order to attract more students, offer degrees without any requirements for learning any Latin and Greek at all.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    I’m really sorry you were put off Patristics. It’s the most fun part of the Tradition, in current academia, because it’s where all the real live theological conversations are.

    ‘Maybe one day people will wake up to the fact that Augustine is the essential basis of any true moral method.’

    I think they already have- there’s a lot of work being done on this at the moment.

    In general on Augustine, I think he (like Aquinas) fell out of favour because he was just too influential on previous generations who were felt to be strangling theological discourse. Newman, for example, disliked Augustine because he was convinced he represented a direct road to Calvinism and double predestination. (Maybe does, but that’s another story.)

    But the time is ripe for an Augustine revival: indeed, it is in full swing. Augustine is one of the strongest intellectual bonds between Benedict and Francis, for example- both of them love Augustine and are deeply influenced by him, though they express that influence differently.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    When they realise how much difference reading Scripture in Greek makes, that usually attracts people with interest and curiosity.

    Actually, NT Greek is a great thing to offer the ‘silver generation’. These are people who are usually retired, but have inquiring minds and a real thirst for knowledge. It’s something liberal and traditional Catholics can do together, because the former want to get closer to Jesus, and the latter want to get closer to the Tradition. When they both invest some work, it’s a great way of bonding and getting beyond the usual impasse.

    It’s very easy to learn enough Greek to do the Prologue to John’s Gospel, and I’ve never seen a Catholic fail to be profoundly moved by reading that in Greek.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    If you think the Confessions are mainly about sex, you have really missed the point of them.

    I apologise if I seem condescending- I’m trying to find a way to get you to reread them, and I can’t come up with anything better than I’ve said so far. What do you think I could say to get you to reread them?

  • Dave

    Thanks again.

  • Benedict Carter

    Of what type?

  • Jon Brownridge

    Everything you say is absolutely correct. I presume by “Christ” you mean Jesus of Nazareth. St. Augustine speaks of “The Christ” which is a much wider and more comprehensive concept.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    I do mean Jesus of Nazareth, and also Christ as Augustine means it. The Confessions are particularly concerned with that last stage of getting from a neo-Platonic adoration of God to an actual two-way relationship (or three-way, in the Ostia scene), and that is done in particular through the humanity of Christ in this book, but that is not separable from Christ the One Mediator who is both God and man.

  • Lee Bacchi

    I did my Ph.D. dissertation on Augustine as well — centered on his letters, not the Confessiones. But I am using that work for a month-long retreat in September. I heartily agree with your conclusion, though, but will go one further — every Christian should read it!

  • Frank

    I remember reading this book at about the same age Fr. and it was a profound influence. This article has prompted me to read it at a different stage in life.

  • http://jabbapapa.wordpress.com/ Julian Lord

    The paperback Latin that I want is DIRT cheap — and typically, I dislike Loeb.

    I also do not need any translation. :-)

  • http://jabbapapa.wordpress.com/ Julian Lord

    Consider reading the English or French translation first

    naaaaah — I really do not trust very many translators, with the notable exception of Saint Jerome.

  • JR, Sydney

    Not the dissent of Dissenters , perhaps. I refer you to my response above to Sara T_M_S-again.

  • Dave

    One could debate whether rendering Latin into Anglo-American Loebsprache is translation, but, of course if you can get the Confessions cheaper, and in an edition what will not dye your pockets red…

  • JR, Sydney

    I have already responded, Sara and someone appears to have deleted it. I will respond again. Thanks for your apology but you don’t appear to be condescending at all. I am surprised to realise that you have presumed to think it is your duty to persuade me to re read the Confessions. It is not. I won’t be doing so, for the reasons I have already outlined. It is best that you and I respectfully agree to disagree with one another. This is a forum for debate , not for instruction.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    Well, this post argues that everyone should read the Confessions, so I don’t think it’s untoward for me to speed the plough in that direction in the comments underneath it. But by all means tell me in exchange that I should try harder like Brideshead Revisited (which I don’t), or anything else you like.

  • $24570317

    “Better the astringent commonsense of Thomas a Kempis.”

    Better by far. But to paraphrase the latter: we will not be judged by what we’ve read but by what we’ve done (or at least tried to do).

  • $24570317

    “Every time I get more out of it, and every time different things strike me about it.”

    As with PG Wodehouse.

  • JR, Sydney

    I would not presume to do so.

  • http://jabbapapa.wordpress.com/ Julian Lord

    :-)